Director: Frank Darabont
Starring: Andre Braugher, Jeffrey DeMunn, Nathan Gamble, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Thomas Jane, Toby Jones
Runtime: 126 minutes
While we’re in the 2000s (don’t worry, I’ll be returning to earlier films), and talking about films with a group of survivors pitted against an inexorable horde of enemies, we might as well talk about The Mist. I have to say that, like The Descent, this is probably one of the best horror movies of the last decade or two. It also has a nihilistic ending—well, it’s more traumatic than truly nihilistic, but it’s possibly one of the most emotionally painful endings in film history. Whereas the endings of Night of the Living Dead or The Descent haunt you, or make you feel empty, the ending here rips your heart out.
I was a bit apprehensive about seeing this movie, since 1) I was disappointed with a lot of the newer horror movies coming out, and 2) it was an adaptation of Stephen King’s novella “The Mist.” Now, I am a fan of King’s writing, and although I enjoy many of the movie versions of his works, they are usually little more than campy fun. So, even though I’d heard a lot of praise regarding it, I didn’t have high expectations or rush myself to see it.
The story focuses on a group of people in a small Maine town (go figure) who seek refuge in a grocery store as a mysterious mist engulfs the town. They soon find out there are creatures inside this mist—and they aren’t friendly. But the real story is in the tensions that erupt between the characters. Much of this King has exploited in a number of other stories and novels (the crazy religious figure, the arrogant macho guy against the sensitive everyday Joe), so it’s not that anything particularly unique is going on here. But what King does well on the page is to bring his characters to life through vivid and idiosyncratic dialogue and description. The same thing happens on screen, probably owing to the strength of Darabont’s screenplay, but most likely the result of a talented ensemble cast.
There’s Thomas Jane, playing David, the everyman character who is an amalgam of the motivated, aggressive masculine hero and the sensitive, artistic type. He’s tough and courageous, but because he cares about others, not just because he wants to be the manly man. He is concerned about the safety of his young son, Billy (Nathan Gamble), throughout. There’s also the classy Laurie Holden as Amanda, an actress notable more through TV (as Marita Covarrubias on The X-Files and Andrea on The Walking Dead). She helps David to rally the others and take care of Billy. There’s Andre Braugher as Norton, the New York attorney who spends his summers next door to the Jane’s; he’s self-righteous, arrogant, and aggressive. He is, however (not sure how much of it is due to Darabon’s writing or Brugher’s nuanced portrayal), more sympathetic than his character in the original novella.
But perhaps the most memorable character is the eerily sadistic religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody, played by Marcia Gay Harden. (Harden played a similar role as the Goneril character in King of Texas, an adaptation of King Lear set in the Wild West.) This figure—not that uncommon to horror films (remember Carrie’s mother?), often goes over the top (remember Carrie’s mother?). But Harden makes this character somehow more subtle and believable, more human and yet all the more evil. Maybe it’s because the film suggests this is her genuine response to a desperate situation, rather than just her being ignorant or lusting for power. Though her ability to easily manipulate the others, and convince them that by offering up “sacrifices” to God, they can appease the monsters (who have been sent by God to wreak his justice on a wicked world), is also one of the things that makes that her character so frightening.
I’ve gone on longer than intended. I’d love to talk about each character—even the minor ones here have their strengths. Let me just say that Toby Jones, Frances Sternhagen, William Sadler, Melissa McBride, and Jeffrey DeMunn also put in top notch performances. (Some of them make frequent appearances in King adaptations and Darabont works.)
If you’re wondering about the monsters, don’t worry. There’s plenty of good old action and special effects, but all done tastefully and selectively (it’s not the “gross out” kind). Most of the creatures are mysterious, largely hidden by the mist, and range in size from small, insect-like creatures to incomprehensibly large ones. But the tension is more about the unknown—what else is out there? What is attached to the horrible tentacle that snaked its way into the back of the store? The minimal use of music also underscores the relative sparseness of the tone, except for the haunting Dead Can Dance song at the end.
So yeah, the end. I won’t spoil it for you. You’re probably chuckling to yourself thinking, “Oh, it can’t be that bad! They’re just characters. Anyway, what’s the worst that can happen? They all die? We’ve seen that before!” All right, oh desensitized viewer, or arbiter of horror movie predictability, go ahead and watch thinking it will all be OK. But don’t say I didn’t warn ‘ya.